On Pre-orders

In the wake of the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the debate about previews re-surfaced. Total Halibut made a 20-minite case for why previews are anti-consumer and generally hurts the industry. Jim Sterling of the Jimquisition made a very verbal case, as well, calling profilic developers “liars”. A colleague linked the latter, whereon I decided to write a post about it. Not having thought as much about this topic in advance as I did for last week’s Violence in Video Games, I had to do some research. And I found this is kind of a thorny topic, but one well worth investigating.

After these two videos, surely we can claim lock-in previewing a bad game on false premises is a problem. Let’s begin by finding the source of  and, rather than focus on what the gaming press or consumers can do to solve it, which Halibut and Jim seems to have done so well, let’s focus on what the games business can do itself.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are my own, and not necessarily those of Coilworks as a whole. I may have a voice, but I’m just one voice. I will not dictate what we think, but will hold open discussions with the the team as a whole.

Why do pre-orders exist?

To answer this, let’s look at the context of where they exist – the traditional business model for pay-once big-budget games.

First you make a game. This includes spending many months in a small team trying to figure out questions like “what is this game, exactly?” and “why would anyone want this?”. It includes convincing someone with money (your/a publisher, the team, the crowd) that this will not just be the best game ever; it will be the next hit, something very unique, which will cost X for Y man months of development and make them X+More money. It includes making the actual game, through designing, building, testing and evaluating in a cycle you want as quick and as many revolutions in as you can. This will take many man-months, sometimes with teams much bigger than previously (this could be up to 80% of your development time). As you can see, this costs a lot of money.

But just making a game is, of course, not worth a dime if no-one knows it exist and is convinced they want to play it at the expense of some money. So you do everything humanly possible to reach people who may fill these requirements: You attend trade fairs, you reach out to the press (more on this later), you build relationships with the gamers who look forward to the game your making, and advertise to reach those hard-to-reach people who don’t seek you out by themselves. As you can hear, this also costs a lot of money.

That is a lot of money “down the drain”, isn’t it? It is – it can be millions or even tens of millions of dollars! So, that must mean you have this huge window to recoup this costs and make a profit? Sadly, no. Most of these games sell on spectacle, on being “the coolest thing ever”; and with rapidly improving techniques to make games even more spectacular than before, you won’t be the coolest kid in town particularly long – just about 6-8 weeks, often times. And that’s before counting in that second-hand sales often arrive as quick as someone can feel they have “completed” the game or piracy. And we’re not done yet – because these games are sold at such a high price-point, most gamers plan their purchases carefully, buying only the best value for their money. So a barrage of bad reviews will probably sink the game completely.

Which means that to extend this window, you want to sell before your game as soon as you can, but still not release something that doesn’t reflect badly on you.

I guess we are ready to move on, so let’s summarise the context. Pre-orders exists because:

  • Big-budget games are really expensive to make.
  • Spectacular games are not spectacular for very long.
  • The window to recoup those costs is really small.

What can be done about it?

Here’s where I could become really political, and say something like “regulation is required!” or “forbid this practice!”. Fine, I’ll be political: There’s no need to, as it is only a sub-set of the game’s industry that deals in this practice. Look at small indie games or free-to-play titles and you won’t find the practice. And, to some degree, it already is illegal (at least in Sweden) to market a product with false information and lies.

The paragraph above also holds the key to how it can be solved. In essence, the three bullet points above must be solved by game-makers to make this consumer-gambling practice redundant:

No-one would play a lottery with their lives or their jobs, yet this business model does it with every project. I’m not saying all games should be smaller, or free-to-play (although it’s a ongoing trend) – the guys at Mojang have already developed a strategy of selling their games as early as possible to take the least financial risk possible with it (although I guess it still only really applies to Minecraft), and Eric Ries’ book The Lean Start-Up presents loads of examples where “release early, iterate on the product when it’s live” has paid off. Would you really mind if The Next Big AAA Game was a un-fun series of boxes if they bought it for a penny and could influence it’s development as it progressed, to have the game equally kick-ass when it was “done”? I surely wouldn’t!

In marketing theory, “positioning” is a central concept – the idea that to be memorable, or “top of mind”, as it’s called, you should claim a concept, a feeling, or a word, for your own. But here’s the kicker – there’s no such thing as “second top of mind” – either you win, or you lose. Yet so many games out there seem to strive at being positioned as “the coolest [genre X] out there”. I’m simplifying, but it’s erringly close. For the uninitiated (such as myself), what’s the real difference between Crysis, Medal of Honour and Battlefield, three $50 titles where you shoot stuff from a first-person view in spectacular, short and heavily directed single-player campaigns or beat your friends in some on-line shooting? I asked a representative for one, who noted some gameplay and theme differences I considered minor. All of these three are funded and marketed by the same company – I even saw all three on the same show floor a few months back! So do a variety of things, and position all your brands as they were, you know, brands in their own right (My 20-something-year-oldness is so shining through here! Kind regards, My Future Self)

Lastly, the window for each game has better be long. Most big businesses seem to have caught on to this, serving multi-player modes for most games. But, as someone who prefer playing games in solitude, I want to offer an option – exploration. I love, say, World of Warcraft for their environments and dungeons to explore, and learning how the updated systems work. I love the Mass Effect series for how different choices leads to various scenarios (not to mention Knights of the Old Republic, which I still want to play again!). I love Skyrim for it’s mod-scene, where I can explore tonnes of variations in the world, it’s looks, even down-right to game play!

So, to wrap this up (because I’d better leave my office before the night alarm goes off):

  • Find your Lean Game Development model: Release early, update often. It’s fun to experience something develop!
  • Find a unique position for each brand, and don’t put all your eggs in one positional basket.
  • Give your players a really good reason to stay in your game. If you fire-and-forget, so will they.

3 Responses to On Pre-orders

  1. thesensiblegamer says:

    There’s definitely something to be said about the ‘ethical marketing’ of a game and brand loyalty as well (an avenue I explored in an article on my own blog).

    Additionally, replayability and how open a game is to modding (something close to my heart, as an avid modder) is far larger aspect in a game’s window than most developers seem to realize. Bungie has caught on to this, for example, despite having their premiere franchise a console exclusive they shipped Halo 3 and its subsequent iterations with the “Forge” mode.

    Cool article.

    • Johannes Smidelöv says:


      Just read your blog post, and fully agree with you. Transparency is not only honest marketing, and a chance to get valuable feedback; from a time perspective, it is also “free” marketing material (you have already made it for development, after all).

  2. visit says:

    I was able to find good advice from your blog articles.

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